eReaders vs. printed books: What's better for kids?

Kristin Guay
Baystateparent Magazine

When Amazon released the Kindle Kids Edition last fall, Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post offered his opinion on how it might impact the magical relationship between children and books. 

“Kids don’t feel burdened by carrying physical books; they feel girded with the tools of their own entertainment. They clutch them, they rearrange them, they show them off. And, most importantly, they use them to build castles in their own minds. Reduce the full spectrum of those objects to the soulless glow of a screen, and you’ve stolen something precious from a child,” he wrote. “The ery physical thing-ness of a printed book offers an enhancement the e-ink can’t touch.” 

Still, some are firmly for kids and e-readers. According to recent research by the National Literacy Trust,  e-books aren’t just a good alternative to paper books, but could actually have some surprising advantages.

A printed book or an e-reader -- it’s a debatable topic among parents, educators, pediatricians, and the children themselves. The question is: do e-readers help or hurt a child’s literacy development or even their love of reading. And, unfortunately, there is no one clear answer.

What is an e-reader?

Let’s begin by clarifying exactly what an e-reader is. There are several different types of electronic devices on the market that provide a digital version of a book, magazine, newspaper, or some other type of reading material. 

Some e-readers have features that pertain just to the reading and comprehension of the story. These include word hints on difficult words, personal word lists created from words the child has looked up, and dictionary features to help further clarify unknown words. There are also tracking devices to record how much time or how many pages a child has read and even features to set goals for reading time and pages. 

Additional features include the ability to change the font, enlarge the font size, and modify the brightness of the background. 

Other e-readers contain even more features, some that pertain to the story and others that do not. This might include comprehension questions or suggestions on how the story might relate to real life. Some e-reader devices might also include music, animation, and games that are not related to the story. 

Tablets are a little different in that you can access electronic reading material, but you can also browse the Internet, play games, watch movies, take pictures, create videos, and so much more.

E-readers and kids under 3

You would be hard pressed to find research or an early childhood professional that supports e-readers for children at this age. Because many consider e-readers screen time, there is a considerable amount of evidence that supports the position it can actually be more harmful than helpful to a child at this age. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of two. At this age, it is important to develop motor skills and interpersonal relationships and any screen time will compromise that development. Ideally, parents should use print books to create a positive reading experience for their child. The stories should be read with animated voices and children should be encouraged to engage in the stories -- maybe turning the pages or pointing to objects. 

Some might question if an e-reader at this age would be better than no reading at all, and the answer is no. If a parent/caregiver does not spend time reading to a child, then simple conversation and verbal stimulation with the child is better than an e-reader for language and early literacy development. Talking to an infant/toddler as you go through the activities of the day such as getting dressed, preparing a meal, eating food, playing, cleaning up, bathing, etc. is very important for their language development and will do more than plopping them down with an electronic book. 

Very young children need the tactile experience of handling a print book and this includes holding it in their hands, manipulating the book to be able to open the pages properly, and then turning the pages as the story progresses. Reading books to young children is a comforting and nurturing experience as seen when gathering around a teacher in a classroom or curling up on a bed during the evening. Print books do not have sound effects or pop-ups, and for young children, these features can be more distracting than helpful. 

E-readers and kids ages 4-5

For this age group, the World Health Organization recommends that children have no more than one hour a screen time per day and less is preferable. Their reasoning behind this is that what children need most for mental and physical development is physical activity and sleep, and screen time interferes with this. Any sort of e-reader should be used as a supplement to language development activities already employed by the parent, not as a substitute. Any electronic programs should have few enhancements and these features should only pertain to the story--not be additional games or unnecessary animations. If these features do not relate to the comprehension of the story, children will be distracted from the story. 

The problem with e-readers is that parents and children lack what is called “dialogic reading” -- the dialogue that parents and children have while reading a story. This can be looking at the cover and trying to guess what the book will be about, asking the child what they think might happen next before they turn the page, asking them what they think of a particular character in the story, or even observing how something in the story relates to something in the child’s life. If parents chose to introduce e-readers to children of this age, it is very important to treat the e-reader just as they would a print book. The dialogic reading can and should happen with an e-reader as well.

E-readers and kids ages 5-10

Children at this age are developing their independent reading skills and some e-readers can help with this process. Even though the extra features on digital readers can be distracting to some children, they can actually provide some benefits for children that might be struggling or are considered reluctant readers. 

There are features that can help children with unfamiliar words by providing hints. Some devices are able to identify words that present a struggle to children and can create a personal dictionary of words the child has looked up that can be reviewed to improve vocabulary. Some devices have activity trackers that record how many pages or how much time was spent reading. These features can also be used to set reading goals such as reading a certain amount of minutes or pages per day.  

Electronic devices are appealing to reluctant readers who are sensitive about their reading level compared to their peers, but who also become intimidated at the amount of text on a page. The user has control over the type of font, print size, and even the brightness of the background. This feature is especially useful for children with visual processing disorders or learning disabilities such as dyslexia. They can basically arrange the text on a page that is user-friendly and more manageable to them. 

Jamie Ziblsky, Ph.D., weighed the pros and cons of e-readers for children that might need the additional support in an article in Psychology Today. She mentioned research that showed how technology-enhanced storybooks impact literacy development in young children. “Children from low SES (socioeconomic status) background and/or from immigrant bilingual families benefited most from the multimedia features of technology-enhanced storybooks, likely because the additional information presented nonverbally helped enhance their background knowledge, and thus, comprehension of the story. But interactive features distracted them somewhat more than their more advantaged peers.”

Other studies have been conducted around the world regarding the potential benefits of e-readers and improved literacy skills of children in this age group. The National Literacy Trust reported on the impact of e-books on elementary student’s performance during an academic year, noting that “being given the opportunity to read e-books had a positive impact on children’s reading attitudes, particularly for boys and those who began the project as less engaged readers. The study found that over the course of the project, which lasted for an average of 4.2 months, boys’ reading levels increased by an average of 8.4 months, compared to 7.2 months’ progress made by girls. Furthermore, the percentage of boys that felt reading was difficult almost halved from 28.0% to 15.9%, suggesting that confidence in their own reading ability increased as a result of the project. In addition, the percentage that felt reading was cool rose from 34.4% to 66.5%.” 

In the study, students said they preferred e-books over print books, mostly to do with ease of reading. Some children stated that they found the page less intimidating because they could make the font size bigger which seemed to make the text on each page more palatable. They also liked that they could control the color and the brightness of the background, making it easier on the eyes. It really came down to simply being easier and less of a strain to read the material.

E-readers for middle and high schoolers

This might come as a surprise, but many studies have shown that middle/high school students actually prefer print books over e-readers. There are many thoughts on this but the most common explanation seems to do with the everyday habits of this age group. They are constantly on electronic devices and, when it comes to reading for pleasure, they want a break from the electronic format. 

But one reason that some teens do gravitate to electronic reading devices is that the e-readers provide anonymity for the reader and the material they are reading is known only to them. This is especially important in the middle and high school years when children use literature to better understand themselves and their world. At this age, there are many fiction and nonfiction books with topics of bullying, LGBTQ, substance abuse, sexual abuse, self-harm, and a host of other topics that this age group would prefer to explore in private. Another benefit of e-readers at this age is that it can help with the required reading from their academic curriculum, especially reading assignments given during the summer months. 

Some e-readers are better suited to work with Overdrive, the system that public libraries across the US use to lend e-books. This feature is particularly helpful when a student is looking for a summer reading book (one week before school starts!) and all the required reading books are checked out. Retrieving a book from Overdrive could save the day.

As children get older, there is a tendency by parents to not monitor screen time as carefully, and this can be a serious mistake. Kids between the ages of 8-19 have an average of seven hours of screen time per day. Research has linked screen time with an increased amount of sedentary behavior in children and teens, and while there is no long term evidence yet to link screen time to an increased risk of health conditions like cardiovascular disease and high cholesterol, there is mounting evidence that it is associated with obesity, according to the American Heart Association. 

When teens use electronic devices to read, either for school assignments or for pleasure, it is important to make sure these devices focus on reading material, not the other games, animations and other features that come with some e-readers or even tablets. Another word of caution: it is important to limit any screen use with children late into the evening. E-readers do not have the same screen flicker as other electronic devices, but there is still some concern that any electronic use too close to bedtime might interfere with children winding down at the end of the day.

A final thought

The benefits of strong literacy skills have been analyzed and discussed for many years. Strong literacy skills are important in every academic topic, higher education applications, job employment, and general adult-life situations such as lease agreements, contracts, mortgage applications and a host of other personal and professional situations where it is imperative to have strong reading skills. Everything from creating a protective and nurturing feeling for a child, decreasing high school drop-out rates, success in finding a productive job, to prison time have all been tied in with literacy skills. 

Many parents might be wondering if e-readers are the golden ticket to securing literacy success in their child -- and the simple answer is yes and no. For some children an e-reader could prove very helpful, but for others, not so much. Factors such as the age of the child, personality of the child, reading style, learning difficulties, and type of e-reader all need to be taken into consideration. 

Ask questions of your child’s teacher or physician and observe your child when reading print or e-books to help make the right decision for your child and your family.